Exploring Beethoven’s Quartets: Barry Cooper writes about Op.18:3, Op.95 and Op.130

BC-image(3)Barry Cooper is one of the world’s leading Beethoven scholars. He has published numerous books on Beethoven, amongst others The Beethoven Compendium, and he has reconstructed Beethoven’s unfinished 10th Symphony as well as the original slow movement of the Op. 18:2 quartet. He has also edited the complete piano sonatas. Prof. Cooper teaches at the University of Manchester.


String Quartet in D major, Op. 18 No. 3 (1798-9)

Andante con moto

In his early years Beethoven seems to have regarded the string-quartet genre with some apprehension, since under Haydn and Mozart it had become the most elevated and sophisticated type of chamber music. Thus he composed trios, quintets, and exercises for string quartet before finally embarking on a set of six actual string quartets in 1798. No. 3 was the first to be composed. Nos. 1 and 2 followed, and Prince Lobkowitz paid him 200 florins for the set of three in October 1799. For publication, however, Beethoven revised Nos. 1 and 2 (and probably also No. 3), and arranged them and three additional quartets into their present order. They duly appeared as Op. 18 in 1801 with a dedication to the Prince.

No. 3 begins with an unusual two-note figure for unaccompanied violin. It sounds like the beginning of a slow introduction, and in one sense it is introductory; but the two notes are also a central motif for the whole movement, and Beethoven ingeniously exploits their ambiguous status later on, while developing the motif in an astonishing variety of ways – chordally, contrapuntally, inverted, stretched, compressed, or accelerated, but still recognisably derived from the original idea.

The second movement is in an unusually remote key for that time: B flat major. Initially all seems sunny and peaceful, but the movement gradually develops a more profound and sophisticated mood, with little antiphonal effects that are the essence of quartet writing, and it eventually reaches the dark keys of D flat major and E flat minor, where the instruments’ open strings no longer provide any resonance as they had done in the first movement. Beethoven’s sensitivity to such subtleties is an indication of the incredible acuteness of his ear.

The third movement is effectively a minuet and trio; but it is too fast for a minuet and too serious for a scherzo, and so it is simply labelled ‘Allegro’, with the middle section a ‘Minore’ in contrasting mood. The finale recalls the opening movement by beginning with a violin solo – this time for four whole bars. The movement is in sonata form, but includes some disruptive modulations in the exposition; these then return in B flat major in the recapitulation, providing a subtle reference to the key of the slow movement. This type of long-range key relationship and the use of a lengthy coda were devices that Beethoven exploited very extensively in his later works.


String Quartet in F minor, Op. 95 (1810)

Allegro con brio
Allegretto, ma non troppo
Allegro assai vivace, ma serioso
Larghetto espressivo – Allegretto agitato – Allegro

‘The Quartet is written for a small circle of connoisseurs and is never to be performed in public.’ So wrote Beethoven about his only F minor quartet, Op. 95. This does not mean, however, that we should not perform the work in public today. He was thinking of the usual type of concert of his day, which mingled symphonies, arias and perhaps a solo or two, before an audience of perhaps two thousand in a large theatre. In such a context this highly charged and intimate work would have sounded out of place, but a modern quartet recital produces conditions much closer to ‘a small circle of connoisseurs’, and is therefore an eminently suitable context.

The autograph score of the quartet, headed ‘Quartetto serioso’, is dated October 1810, and Beethoven’s sketches indicate that it was composed around that time; but the score may have been written out only later and dated retrospectively, after revisions had been made. Beethoven certainly withheld it from publication for several years, and it did not finally appear until 1816, dedicated to his cello-playing friend Baron Nikolaus Zmeskall. The quartet is extremely compressed compared with most of Beethoven’s middle-period works, and its key recalls that of his ‘Appassionata’ Sonata, the dungeon scene in his opera Fidelio, and his oppressive Egmont Overture. Echoes of the moods of these earlier works can clearly be heard here.

The first movement is particularly intense, and as in the ‘Appassionata’ much use is made of the contrast between the keynote F and the G flat a semitone higher, which repeatedly intrudes to challenge the main key. This semitone contrast sometimes appears at other pitches too, creating abrupt shifts to remote keys.

The second movement begins gently, but in the disturbingly distant key of D major, and its middle section consists of a strange and unsettling fugato that is continually shifting key. The gentle opening then returns, but the calm ending is suddenly disrupted by a discord that heralds the start of the next movement. As in Op. 18 No. 3, this is neither a minuet nor a scherzo but a serious Allegro, marked ‘rather lively, but serious’. Nevertheless, Beethoven retains the minuet-and-trio form, with a smoother trio-like section twice alternating with the main one to create a five-part structure.

The finale, which has a slow introduction, is again very compressed. It seems destined to end prematurely, until the ‘rogue’ G flat suddenly reappears. This time, however, it is reinterpreted as an F sharp and generates a very fast, light coda in F major – a wonderful sense of dramatic liberation from overbearing oppression, as in coda to the Egmont Overture, which had been written immediately beforehand. Liberation was indeed a political issue at the time, only a year after the French invasion of Vienna in 1809, and the quartet seems to embody Beethoven’s very personal response to it.


String Quartet in B flat major, Op. 130 (1825-6)

Adagio ma non troppo – Allegro
Andante con moto ma non troppo
Alla danza tedesca: Allegro assai
Cavatina: Adagio molto espressivo
Finale: Allegro

This was the last of three string quartets commissioned in the 1820s by the Russian Prince Galitzin, and it was begun around June 1825. The first two movements seem to have come to Beethoven quite easily, but for some time he was undecided about the structure of the rest of the quartet, or even how many movements there would be. He had still less idea what sort of finale to compose – a problem that continued to dog him for over a year.

The first movement is unusual in having a slow introduction that repeatedly reappears in some guise during the main Allegro, being heard twice early on, three times at the end of the exposition and three more times after the recapitulation. The second movement is a very short Presto and Trio in B flat minor and major with contrasting metres.

Beethoven originally planned to have a highly expressive, aria-like third movement, in D flat major. His sketches reveal, however, that he became bogged down in this movement for about a month, and eventually replaced it with the present third movement, marked ‘poco scherzoso’ and also in D flat major. He then worked out the aria-like movement as a ‘Cavatina’ in E flat, using it for the fifth movement. Before it he placed a waltz-like movement entitled ‘Alla danza tedesca’, which had originally been written for his previous quartet (Op. 132) but had been discarded. The ‘Cavatina’, perhaps the most beautiful movement he ever wrote, is highly charged with intense emotion, and even the composer himself was reportedly moved to tears by its sheer loveliness and profundity.

Beethoven sketched at least a dozen possible finale themes before deciding on a gigantic fugue. It became much bigger than originally intended, for after reporting in late August that the quartet would be finished in ten to twelve days, he did not complete it until about December. It was tried out on 21 March (1826), but the audience were bewildered by the fugue, and in September he decided to write a new finale. It is usually said that he was persuaded to do so by his friends and the publisher, Mathias Artaria. By September, however, Artaria had said he found the fugue ‘thoroughly comprehensible’, and had even had it engraved as the finale. Thus the decision to write a new finale was Beethoven’s. He was justly proud of the fugue as a work of art, and had even produced a four-hand arrangement for piano. It was this that evidently induced him to turn the string version into a self-standing work too – a ‘Great Fugue’, Op. 133 – which could be appreciated better on its own than after five other movements.

The new finale for Op. 130 was a much lighter one, more in line with the character of his early sketches for possible finales. It was written during autumn 1826, and was the last full-scale movement Beethoven completed. Arguments have raged about the wisdom of his change, but the new finale has the advantage of balancing the other movements much better in terms of length, as well as being more in line with the divertimento-like aspects of the rest of the work.


Barry Cooper